Phil Lord and Christopher Miller know how to turn nearly anything into a good time.
Over a wide-ranging 20-year career, Lord and Miller, who first met at Dartmouth College, have demonstrated a unique knack for finding fun, clever stories in some of the least likely places.
The creative tag team — who often swap writer, director and producer hats — gave staid plastic bricks an awesome makeover in “The Lego Movie” franchise. They helped to transform the lesser-known comic book character Miles Morales into an Oscar winner with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” They found laughs in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with the Fox sitcom “The Last Man on Earth,” and in an earnest ’80s TV drama, with the “21 Jump Street” films. They also produced Netflix’s animated Oscar contender, “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” which turned a terrifying technological singularity into a heartwarming family adventure.
Now, they’re injecting mirth into murder with their new series, “The Afterparty,” whose first three episodes premiere Friday on Apple TV+ (the remaining five episodes will air weekly).
When Miller birthed the murder-mystery idea in 2010, he envisioned it as a feature film, having taken inspiration from classics like “Rashomon” and “Clue.” In 2019, he revised the story to fit an episodic TV format, and he served as the showrunner and director of all the episodes while Lord executive produced. The finished product is a whodunit built like a Matryoshka doll, with multiple cinematic genres nestled inside of one big mystery.
With an ensemble cast that includes Ike Barinholtz, Ilana Glazer, Sam Richardson and Ben Schwartz, the series revolves around a high school reunion that ends in death. Tiffany Haddish plays a Columbo-style police detective who’s sizing up the crime scene.
“We’re all stars in our own movie,” the detective tells the suspects, and the series literalizes the point. Nearly every episode revolves around a different partygoer’s account of the night’s events and is presented in a style that reflects that character’s personality: a sappy rom-com for Richardson’s lovelorn alumnus who is pursuing an old crush; an absurd action flick for Barinholtz’s emasculated ex-jock; a psychological thriller for Glazer’s paranoid valedictorian who fell from grace.
Lord and Miller talked recently about “The Afterparty” in a joint video interview from their respective Los Angeles homes, where they’ve been preparing “Spider-Man: Across the Universe (Part One)” for an October release, as well as scripting and animating the reboot of their early-aughts animated series “Clone High” for HBO Max. The puckish pair discussed switching gears, sweating the details and getting a second chance to make a good impression. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You jumped into this live-action project right after finishing an animated one, “Into the Spider-Verse.” Do you approach those two mediums differently?
PHIL LORD The bottom line is we don’t really see them any differently; we treat everything the same. I don’t know if it’s that our sense of humor is just juvenile enough to appeal to children also, but in all cases, we’re trying to do something that we haven’t quite seen before. We’re always trying to experiment. Maybe that’s why we Ping-Pong back and forth.
CHRISTOPHER MILLER We’re always trying to take a story and figure out how to make it something new and add something to the conversation. We follow that story to where it wants to be its best self.
In an animated episode, there’s a quick sight gag about Easter eggs. Should viewers be looking for those throughout?
MILLER This is a crazy thing because we are crazy people. Because it was a puzzle of a murder-mystery, we thought it would be really fun to add some hidden Easter egg-style clues, codes and ciphers for people to solve, as a bonus. You don’t need to freeze-frame and solve these things to figure out whodunit; that’s all there in the narrative. But, on top of that, for the uber-nerds, there are a lot of little details in the set dressing, signage and other hidden messages that, if you decode them, give you hints into who did or didn’t do it. Making a show where every episode is its own little movie, each episode is shot with different lighting, lensing, costuming and music is a huge production challenge. We thought, “Why not add one more production challenge on top of it?”
LORD It’s like making a bespoke thing. I always like receiving a gift from filmmakers, something physical that’s had that level of attention, as opposed to something that feels clean and manufactured. The trick with this stuff is that it’s mass entertainment, but you never want it to feel mass-produced.
Did you go back and take notes on films from all of the different genres?
MILLER Absolutely. There are a lot of different subgenres within these genres. Like, there are a lot of different types of action movies. So there were a lot of conversations like, “Is this going to be a “Fast & Furious,” or a “John Wick,” or a classic “Die Hard” action movie?” We never wanted to make anything a parody or a spoof. We’re big film buffs, and it’s all done with love and admiration for how other people have found interesting ways to tell stories. We’re sort of stealing all their best ideas and putting them into one thing. We wanted to use the storytelling conventions of those genres to let us have a window into these characters’ inner lives.
Which styles would you use to tell your personal stories?
MILLER One of those rambling, improv-filled comedies that don’t have a lot of plot because that’s what I think our daily life is like.
LORD White male ennui — like, “Oh, we all just rented a house in Ojai and we’re going to work out our beefs from growing up.”
What was it like creating and filming during the pandemic?
LORD We made a summer bubble in 2020. We both were renting places in Malibu, so we would walk down the beach and have production meetings.
MILLER But making the show, obviously, was in-person. We shot from October 2020 to February 2021. I think the chemistry on the show was due to the fact that so many people had just been in their homes by themselves. They showed up on set and were just so happy to be around other human beings. So the mood on set was like nothing we’d ever done before.
That’s not surprising: Most of the cast members would be considered the “exclamation points” of their previous projects.
MILLER It’s basically a show filled with a dozen exclamation points! You get all these people who are the funniest people you know in a room, and it makes for a joyous experience. So many of the cast are hyphenates — creators, writers, directors, showrunners. They all are approaching this thing from the point of view of somebody who makes stuff as well. So they were able to hold this complicated thing in their heads. You’re asking them to come in and not just play a character but play eight different versions of a character. It’s a very complex ask.
LORD They’re also all on offense. Nobody is there trying not to get in trouble, or to play it safe, or to avoid looking stupid. They’re all there trying to figure out, “What could be contributed to this moment?”
Have you attended any of your own high school reunions?
LORD I’ve been to many. The first hour’s conversation is always like, “I’m miserable!” “Yes! I hate it here!” “Let’s leave!” Then, by the end, you just hang with those few people you grew up with and remember why you were so close so long ago, and it’s a very warm feeling. Warmth and humiliation. At my 25th, they gave out certificates, and I got “Most Improved.” It was nice for one second to feel that I was well-liked. And then I immediately knocked over the entire drink table. I leaned on it when I was feeling confident, then it collapsed under my weight, and I felt embarrassed all over again. In a reunion, you experience all the emotions of high school in a four-hour period. It’s like “High School: The Ride.”
MILLER I missed one or two. It is a complicated experience. You go to these things and you’re mixed up with a lot of conflicting emotions — there are fond memories and painful memories; you’re reverting to old dynamics and you want to feel like you’ve moved past some of those things. What high school reunions are, for many people, is they’re presenting the version of themselves they want their old classmates to see.
What the show is really about is trying to get people to take a moment to look at the world through someone else’s eyes. When you do that, you might find that people are more surprising and complex than you think.
Having worked together since college, how do each of you think the other has changed? Is your work dynamic different from what it once was?
MILLER It’s not like one is the “this person” and one is the “that person.”
LORD We’re both “the messy one.” Chris was “the messy one” until he met me.
MILLER He’s right. I am the Felix to Phil’s Oscar, but I would be the Oscar to any other person. But we are both very involved in every step of the creative process. In our early days, we were looking over each other’s shoulders trying to write scenes in the same room, and it was really hard. Nowadays, we talk about what our goals are, then we go off separately and have a little room to try things, fail, figure it out and then send them to each other. It only makes its way onto screen if both of us feel like we’ve got something.
LORD Now, I think we’re more curious about what the other person is going to bring to it, knowing the end product is going to become something neither of us would’ve done on our own. That’s the pleasure of having a partnership because you just don’t know where it’s going to go. That used to feel scary, and now it feels really exciting.
MILLER And the key to that is having a lot of trust and admiration. It’s like a marriage.
LORD Like a marriage, without some of the fun parts.